WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump became the third president in history to be impeached Wednesday after a bitterly divided House formally charged him with “high crimes and misdemeanors” over his request to Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
After a daylong debate marked by fiery recriminations, lawmakers voted largely along party lines in favor of impeachment, reshuffling American politics at a time when voters were already profoundly divided over the nation’s leadership and direction.
Democrats and Republicans disagreed sharply over the president’s actions, the ramifications of the historic vote, and each other’s motives in either defending Trump or prosecuting the case against him. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., stepped to the dais at one point to chide Republicans for what he described as choosing party over country.
“Many of my colleagues appear to have made their choice to protect the president, to enable him to be above the law, to empower this president to cheat again as long as it is in the service of their party and their power,” the House Intelligence Committee chairman said. “They have made their choice and I believe they will rue the day that they did.”
Republicans claimed Democrats were grasping for any excuse to undermine an unconventional president who unexpectedly and narrowly won election in 2016 against Hillary Clinton. They repeatedly described the process used in the run up to the vote as unfair, sidestepping the fact that the White House rebuffed invitations to take part.
“One week before Christmas, I want you to keep this in mind,” Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Ga., told his colleagues during the debate. “Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president.”
Will the Senate remove Trump?
The Democratic-led House approved 230-197 the first article of impeachment accusing Trump of abusing his power by asking Ukrainian officials to announce investigations that would benefit his reelection. Minutes later, the House approved a second article, voting 229-198 to charge Trump with obstructing the congressional investigation into that request.
Though the historic votes ended a hurried effort by Democrats to advance impeachment articles before the end of the year – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the inquiry into Trump’s actions less than three months ago – it will kick off an exceptionally rare trial in the Senate to determine whether the president will be removed from office.
Republican leaders expect that trial to begin next month.
“Our founders’ vision of a republic is under threat from actions from the White House,” Pelosi told her colleagues on the House floor, prompting applause from Democrats and silence from Republicans. “If we do not act now, we would be derelict in our duty. It is tragic the president’s reckless actions make impeachment necessary. He gave us no choice.”
Impeachment, which Pelosi and other Democratic leaders initially resisted, could also have consequences for the 2020 election, where a field of candidates angling to unseat Trump have sought to focus the nation’s attention on health care, immigration and education while tiptoeing around the constitutional dramas unfolding in Washington. Trump is betting impeachment will sour swing voters on Democrats for years to come.
Trump’s response: Defiance
As if to underline that point, Trump remained defiant throughout the day, accusing Democrats of “atrocious lies” and an “assault on America” in a series of tweets. The president, who did not take questions from reporters throughout the day, left the White House before the impeachment votes, escaping Washington for a campaign rally in the presidential battleground state of Michigan.
Trump took the stage in Battle Creek just as the House began voting, setting up an extraordinary split screen image for cable news networks.
“It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached,” Trump said as the votes were being tallied during the first article of impeachment. “We did nothing wrong and we have tremendous support in the Republican Party.”
Within the West Wing, aides went about their regular duties in a mood of grim defiance, holding meetings and calls while occasionally glancing at banks of television screens where the debate played. They had anticipated this day for weeks, some said, and have felt under siege since Trump moved into the White House in early 2017.
Others said they wanted the House to get it over with and send the impeachment case to the Republican-led Senate, where Trump is expected to be acquitted.
Senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway attended a Republican Senate luncheon to discuss impeachment and the latest polls before appearing for a pair of media interviews and an impromptu news conference with reporters, during which she criticized the impeachment articles as “spare” and “specious.”
Underscoring the discord among voters, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released hours before the House vote found the nation evenly split, with 48% of Americans saying Trump’s actions demanded impeachment and removal from office and an equal 48% saying they disagree.
At the center of the impeachment is a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked his counterpart to look into a conspiracy about Democratic misdeeds in the 2016 election and, separately, the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Defying Trump’s orders not to testify, a handful of State Department and White House officials detailed for lawmakers in televised hearings how the administration held up nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine as leverage to pressure Zelensky to announce those investigations.
Voters get final say
Trump and his allies said the “perfect call” was an attempt to address corruption in Kyiv, not swing an election.
In that sense, the divisions on display recalled the atmosphere from 1998, when a Republican-led House impeached President Bill Clinton for lying under oath to hide an affair with a White House intern. President Richard Nixon, by contrast, resigned in 1974 to avoid almost certain impeachment after he lost support from Republican defenders.
Throughout the day, Republicans argued the Founding Fathers would have condemned an impeachment playing out along partisan lines. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., vowed Republicans would take that argument to voters in next year’s election.
“It is a matter for the voters, not this House. Not in this way,” Collins said. “The people of America see through this.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, David Jackson, Michael Collins, Ledyard King, Maureen Groppe.